Greece—how could they?

Today Greece is voting whether its government should accept the conditions required by the “Institutions” (EU/ECB/IMF) for the final installment of its second “bailout” package—a yes vote, or to reject them—a no vote. No one is quite sure what it all means. The program to which these conditions and the final installment of $8 billion applied expired on June 30 and those funds are no longer on offer. A yes vote would presumably indicate support by the majority of Greek voters for accepting the conditions (a modest primary budget surplus by the Greek government in coming years and structural reforms to improve the quality of government services and the productivity of Greece’s economy) likely to be offered for a third bailout program. The alternative—no more financial assistance from the Institutions—would force even greater “austerity” on the Greek government even after repudiating all of its external debt and thus saving the funds that it would otherwise needed to pay to service it. If Greek tax payers won’t cover the cost of the government’s promises and the market will no longer lend the shortfall, the government is likely to resort to augmenting its Euro tax income with IOU claims on Euros, i.e. introducing and inflating its own currency.

What were the Greek government and the Greek people thinking when they borrowed all that money in the first place, and it must be added, enjoyed spending it on an inflated, unsustainable lifestyle rather than investing it in a more productive future? But Greek politicians (and public) are hardly the only ones in the world to ignore future costs when making current promises they have no way to keep.

Take the United States, for example. For decades, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office has forecast ever-increasing deficits from American entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) as expenditures increasingly outstripped revenue. This reflects both the growth in the generosity of these programs and demographics (increasing life expectancy and the baby boomer bulge in retired people relative to those working to pay for them—anyone who still thinks that the retired are receiving what they paid in while working just hasn’t been paying attention). I have written about this from time to time such as four years ago in:

The future unsustainability of Social Security promises has been the subject of public debate for at least fifty years. The “future” retirement of the WWII baby boomers and their pension expectations has been known since the end of WWII. But one congress after the other has kicked the ball down the road. Seven years ago I outlined the issues and the relatively simple solutions to Social Security deficits in: Since then Medicare and Medicaid promises have only increased.

President Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the so called Simpson-Bowles Commission) in early 2010 to develop bipartisan proposals for reducing future entitlement driven deficits. He ignored their modest proposals made in the Commission’s final report on December 1, 2010.

The Economist magazine last week reported that the assets available to cover U.S. public sector pensions covered only 75% of their obligations. In fact, the short fall is much greater than that because they are computed assuming a 7.6% return on their assets, which greatly overstates the actual experience of recent years. Private pensions are in much better shape. “But if public plans used the same discount rate as private ones, the deficit would increase to $3.9 trillion and the funding ratio fall to 45%.”

So what are our elected representatives thinking? “Deficits have eventually to be closed. That means lower benefits for the retired, bigger contributions from existing employees (a pay cut) or higher contributions from the employer—which means tax increases for state or city residents, or cuts to other services.

Why is it that our political representatives have such shorter policy horizons than does the public in general? The Economist provides a reasonable summary for the U.S..

“No wonder that no one is getting to grips with the problem. Unions do not like to draw attention to the deficits, for fear benefits will be cut. Politicians do not want to pick a fight with the unions, or increase taxes and annoy voters. Instead, states and cities tend to hope that rising markets will make the problem disappear.”

Comments on Libya and Greece

As usual, some of my friends have strong views of their own and interesting observations to add. Here are a few comments mainly on my Greek referendum blog.

Thanks, Warren

I totally agree with you regarding Greece.  I wonder if a similar referendum might be a good thing for the U.S., with the implication that if the majority of the population does not wish to cut spending and unsustainable entitlements, then the Federal Reserve will be mandated to expand the money supply to cover the shortage by inflation.  Actually, a referendum should put the choice that starkly.

Alternatively, we could rerun the election of 1896  — Fiscal conservative William McKinley versus Inflationist William Jennings Bryan (“free monetization of silver”)…  Then Bryan lost  — I wonder if he would win today.

Obama seems in many ways like another Bryan (without the Bible belt), but where is McKinley when we need him?

Ron [Bird, Virginia]


I am not that keen on this referendum… It Will take 2 more months to have an answer and as you know, Time is money. Moreover they Will say no, do you know a kid who say yes when his father tell him at a party “do you want to go to Sleep”? They are not masochistic as far as I know.

Finally, it s a complete lack of balls from the politicians who are afraid to take strong decisions. However, that s what they were elected for!

Hugo [Gervais, Paris]


Warren is smoking crack.

He writes, “If they accept it and embrace and stand behind the reforms

needed, the crisis for Greece will be over.”

And I say that if I grow 10 inches overnight and learn to play

basketball, I’ll be in the NBA.

The only difference between our two statements is that mine has a

.000000000001 chance of happening.

Dan [Mitchell, Washington DC]


Greetings, Warren

I’m surprised that no one seems as yet to have noticed the irony that the country that invented democracy, and coined the term for it, is the first to be rounded on by a supra-governmental gang of unelected ideologues. I agree with you that the referendum is a good thing but not quite for the same reason you suggest. A ‘yes’ vote might give the Greek government enough political clout to clear out some of the Augean stables. But a ‘no’ vote would be even more fun: it would mean no bailout and lead to default and the exit of Greece from the euro and thus begin the unraveling of the entire misbegotten enterprise. The current prevailing message from the europhiliacs is that the eurozone must not be allowed to fragment, but there may come a time when they see the costs of a no-exit policy as too high and will then ditch the Greeks (and then the Portuguese? and then?) so as to save the currency for the handful of fiscally continent countries still left.

And I’m appalled by the fact that none of the commentators I’ve read has thrown up any hands at the suggestions of ‘closer fiscal union’ as a way of safeguarding the euro. That means, very clearly, taxation without representation, and from there it’s only a small step to tyranny. So the sooner Greece buggers the euro in the grand manner, the better for us all.


Martin [Anderson, London]


hi Warren,

Thanks for sending these.. though I disagree with both. On Libya: it’s way too early to count our chickens. But as I see it, the US got dragged into this by the French and the British on spurious grounds and then overthrew a dictator by force, which was nowhere in the UN mandate, however nasty that dictator was to his own people (for over 40 years, I might add, although we choose to overthrow him only now, and only after he gave up all his nasty weapons and was, so far as anyone could tell, no threat whatsoever to us).

On the Greeks, I’m dumbfounded by the referendum move. Your case makes nice sense in theory but hardly on the ground. How is it possible that Papandraeou, who has been negotiating on a more or less hourly basis with his European counterparts for at least the past six months, could pull off such a surprise? What is really going on? It suggests, at least to me, that the EU is so dysfunctional that there’s nothing to hope for at all. The Greeks voted to join the EU and then the euro. Now is not the time–particularly during the peak of a crisis right after a major negotiation–to second guess that by referendum in the name of validating an EU-wide decision. The EU is not the US but we did away with the doctrine of nullification a long time ago and I suggest the same holds for the EU. This referendum is essentially asking the Greeks to decide to pull out, and if they do it, anyone else can. It’s mad.

Ken [Weisbrode, Boston]



 On Libya, I was saying almost the same thing (see my five earlier warning blogs against getting involved:,,,, ). I am not optimistic about Chapter 2 now starting and glad that we have some chance of staying out of it (though I am worried about that too).





All forms of brinksmanship are pretty much welcome at this point. If you think, like I do, that the problem in Greece and Italy is fundamentally a price competitiveness issue, and not a financing one, then things have to get much worse before people change their ways, start cooperating and stop fighting each other.

It will probably not work out, but hey, that’s cheaper holidays in Italy!

Sahil [Mahtani, Jakarta]


Dear Warren,

I liked your Greek piece.  Insufferable fools.  They’d trade simple (but not so simple…) bankruptcy for a 50% write down and a road back to prosperity.  I’m going to write about it for my column next week.  I wonder how much looking up at Parthenon makes them still think they’re special? The DNA now is mostly Turkish anyway.

I’ll be back in Manila in time for my book launch with ex-president Ramos in a couple of weeks.  I am starting new quickie the Manila publishers want, “For love of a country: 40 years in and out of the Philippines,” which I can write in my sleep.  Though it is amazing how much comes back one had forgotten. Sometimes it’s just hard to believe we’ve been at this game for over 40 years.

I feel my whole life has been a study of empires falling (UK, now USA), new ones emerging (and in Asia no less).  Obama understands…as you pointed out he did the right thing in Libya.  And isn’t it wonderful to say, let the Europeans do this and that, not coming to us with a begging bowl.  A true silver lining to loss of empire.  George W Bush merely hastened the decline.

Scott [Thompson, Bali]

The Greek Referendum

The Greek referendum announced on November 1 by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is a big gamble and politicians rightly don’t like to gamble. I, on the other hand, like the idea. It will force the Greek public to face up to the fact that the Germans and other northern Europeans are no longer willing to support their habit of living high on other peoples’ money.

The Greek referendum announced on November 1 by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is a big gamble and politicians rightly don’t like to gamble. I, on the other hand, like the idea. It will force the Greek public to face up to the fact that the Germans and other northern Europeans are no longer willing to support their habit of living high on other peoples’ money.

Greece and many other governments, banks, and families have financed expenditures above their incomes with other people’s money for too long. The debt burden that has resulted has become too much to carry and lenders are no longer willing to keep on lending. Greece, to focus on today’s headline country, must reduce its debt, and reduce the government’s and the public’s borrowing (reduce spending and/or increase revenue) that created it and keeps it growing.

Some of Greece’s debt is owed to foreigner. Its borrowing from abroad to pay for its imports in excess of its exports can be reduced or eliminated by exporting more and/or importing less. To eliminate its trade imbalance Greek workers and firms must become more competitive with the rest of Europe and the world. Greek labor and produce markets need to be liberalized to become more productive. Retirement at 58 and generous vacations need to be brought into line with worker benefits in other European countries.

In announcing plans for the referendum, Papandreou stated that: “It is ‘time for the citizens to reply responsibly…. Do they want us to implement it or reject it? If the people do not want it, then it shall not be implemented. If yes, we shall proceed.’” [1]

But just what will the Greek voters be asked to decide? “’It’s difficult to see what the referendum is going to be about. Do we want to be saved or not? Is that the question?’ said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.“[2]

The referendum might read: “Yes or No: ‘We agree to promptly adopt the market and fiscal reforms that we need to restore fiscal balance and external competitiveness in the future so that Greece will no longer need to borrow and spend other people’s money. As these adjustments will take time to restore competitiveness and eliminate the government’s need to borrow, the IMF and EU are prepared to lend the money needed to finance an orderly adjustment and banks around the world have agreed to write off half of their existing holdings of Greek government debt.’

A No vote would reduce that debt and any debt service payments to zero (full default), but as the government’s expenditures would still exceed its other spending commitments, the government would need to default on other domestic obligations as well (pensions, larger government salary and employment cuts, etc). Greece would be forced immediately to live fully within its much-reduced means and the suddenness of the government’s cuts would temporarily reduce Greece’s output and employment and government tax revenue even more causing potentially significant overshooting.

The beauty of a referendum is that people will need to face the truth and accept it or suffer the consequences of rejecting it. If they accept it and embrace and stand behind the reforms needed, the crisis for Greece will be over. External financing will still be needed as now planned to minimize the loss of output and revenue from the temporary adjustments needed.

The danger of a referendum is that the people will misunderstand the consequences and say no or will throw a childish tantrum and say no. The consequences of a No vote cannot be fully predicted. When faced with the larger cuts and disruptions full default would cause, civil society could explode with unforeseen results. Furthermore, the losses by banks and (largely Greek) pension funds holding Greek government debt would be larger causing larger losses to bank owners and creditors and probably French and other tax payers (the Greeks seemingly don’t pay taxes).

In this circumstance a possible, but not inevitable, further consequence would be Greece’s introduction of its own currency and a redenomination of Euro obligations of the government (at least) in the new currency at a depreciated exchange rate. If the government can force the re-pricing of wages and goods and services produced in Greece in the new depreciated currency, external competitiveness could be established (at least temporarily) with the stroke of a pen and the running of the currency printing presses. It is not obvious, however, that Greek workers would accept wage cuts via depreciation of the exchange rate of their new currency more readily than directly via nominal wage cuts.

To reintroduce its own currency, the Central Bank of Greece would offer to exchange Euros held by its banks and citizens for its own currency, though it is hard to imagine any of them taking up the offer. The real advantage to Greece of abandoning the Euro, and the source of the catastrophe that would almost surely follow, is that the government could now borrow the new currency from its own central bank. Rather than defaulting on many of its domestic obligations and/or implementing sharper than now planned cuts in government salaries and employment, the government could pay them with the new currency printed by and borrowed from the Central Bank of Greece. Printing money is not the same thing as growing food and building things, of course. So the introduction of its own currency would allow the Greek government to finance its continued deficits via inflation, i.e. reducing the real income and wealth of the private sector in order to transfer it to the government sector.

In Greece’s circumstances, monetary/inflationary financing of the government is a very slippery sloop that is likely to degenerate within a few years into hyperinflation as Zimbabwe recently demonstrated.

Beyond Greece

But what about Spain and Italy? What would be the consequences for their sovereign debt and for the banks and others that hold it of a No vote in Greece? Europe worries much more about this than anything that might happen in Greece. Restoring fiscal balance and improving external competitiveness will be much easier for Italy, for example, than it has been for Greece, if Italy only get on with it. A No vote in Greece would alarm market lenders but would also alarm the Italian government borrower and might well catalyze the reforms needed in Italy more quickly than a Yes vote. The fiscal and structural reforms that have already been discussed with Spain and Italy by the IMF and EU, if implemented, would remove market concerns about their ability to service their debts and thus restore interest rate risk premiums on such borrowing to German sovereign debt rates.

The uncertainty over the coming weeks of the Greek referendum outcome is unfortunate, but Spain and Italy need not wait, nor do they need EU money, to take decisive and credible actions to reassure market lenders.

[1] Howard Schneider and Michael Birnbaum,  “Greek referendum call upends euro plans” The Washington Post, Nov 2, 2011, page A1

[2] Ibid.